Maximising impact: connecting creativity, participation and wellbeing in the qualitative evaluation of creative community projects

  • Susan Challis

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    The evaluation of creative participatory community projects remains a controversial issue in politics, policy and the arts, its focus sharpened by the reality or rhetoric of austerity. Despite the recent plethora of policy documents and reviews there is little consensus about how projects should be evaluated or what constitutes good evidence about the impact on individual and collective wellbeing of ‘being creative.

    This research set out to develop and trial feasible and effective evaluations for small to medium sized projects in the West Midlands of the UK based on field research into how impact is produced. Through mainly qualitative research in diverse contexts it was able to identify a range of conditions in projects reflecting the interrelationship of creativity and participation in which positive impact could be maximised.

    The research sought to theorise the impact of these conditions using elements of Actor Network Theory and Freire’s concept of praxis, concluding that impact is likely to be incremental, partial and non-linear. Central to this theorisation was the synthesis of evidence about the impact of creativity and embodied making on thinking, affect and a sense of agency, with ideas about how people change, producing a new evidence-based theory of change. In a practice-led approach, new creative methods were trialled in which data produced by participants had aesthetic as well as communicative value and the evaluation process itself contributed to positive impact.

    While it was possible to evaluate aspects of this impact through episodic interventions, field trials showed that it was more effective to develop a systemic evaluation strategy. Such a strategy needed to be participatory and integrated into project planning, in order to respond to the stochastic systems creativity inevitably provokes. This proved to offer two advantages: the potential to engage many stakeholders, not just as respondents but also as agents actively defining and measuring evaluation outcomes; and the potential for reflection about impact as process rather than outcome.

    These findings were then implemented in a number of projects, including trials of the Arts Council UK’s developmental Children and Young People’s Quality Principles. The method has been identified as ‘improving the conversation’ amongst partners, stakeholders and artists who can re-position themselves as active agents of evaluation rather than mere respondents, using the tropes, practices and materials of their own professional practices.

    Date of Award2014
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SponsorsEconomic and Social Research Council & Imagineer Productions
    SupervisorPhilip Dunham (Supervisor), Moya Kneafsey (Supervisor), Imogen Racz (Supervisor) & Jane Hytch (Supervisor)


    • Practice-led research
    • Human Geography
    • arts-related methods
    • evaluation creativity
    • Actor Network Theory
    • wellbeing
    • embodiment
    • quality principles
    • participatory arts
    • community

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